Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Black Sabbath parted ways with Ozzy Osbourne after 1978’s Never Say Die!, they wasted no time in replacing him with Ronnie James Dio, former lead singer of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. I was initially introduced to Rainbow via their 1981 hit album Difficult To Cure, featuring Joe Lynn Turner on vocals, but when I went back to the three studio albums they recorded with Dio, that’s when I really became a fan. The physically diminutive singer had the voice of a giant, and he could move from hard rock screaming to soaring operatic vocals with ease. He may not have been the obvious choice to replace Ozzy in Sabbath, since their vocal approaches were quite distinct, but in order for them to be successful in the new decade they needed a change, and Dio turned out to be the perfect singer for them. One of my biggest complaints about the Sabbath catalog so far has been the production of the albums, which paled in comparison to most of their hard rock and heavy metal contemporaries. With the addition of producer/engineer Martin Birch, that would no longer be an issue. Having previously produced &/or engineered great sounding albums by pre-megastardom Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Wishbone Ash and Whitesnake, he gave them a contemporary hard rock sheen that sounded perfect on the radio, and he would soon bring those skills to Iron Maiden, who would clearly be influenced by the albums Birch produced for Sabbath.
The first release by the new lineup was Heaven And Hell (1980), which immediately grabs the listener with “Neon Knights,” a fast-driving song with a great chugging Tony Iommi guitar riff and a snarling Dio vocal performance. If they were a new band, this song would have found them lumped in with the so-called New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, which included up-and-comers Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head and many other Sabbath-influenced bands who would go on to influence subsequent generations of musicians. “Children Of The Sea” begins with a pretty acoustic guitar pattern and Dio’s subdued vocals, but gives way to a heavier section and a catchy melody in the chorus (“Oh they say that it’s over…”). This midtempo, theatrical track is a nice counterpoint to the fast riffing of “Neon Knights,” making for a nice one-two punch.
“Lady Evil” is a bass-heavy, 4/4 rocker that’s more of a Rainbow song. It’s got a classic Dio chorus (“Lady Evil, evil, she’s a magical, mystical woman”) and a fuzzy but clean guitar tone & some solid Blackmore-esque guitar leads. I really like this one. They closed out the original Side One of the album with the longest song, “Heaven And Hell.” This is certainly one of the highlights, not just here but in their entire catalog so far. I love the galloping rhythm during the main riff and the sparseness of the verses (driven by Bill Ward’s shuffle beat), which gives the choruses more power (“It goes on and on and on…”). There’s also the classic Sabbath fast part later in the song before it closes with about 40 seconds of quiet acoustic guitar.
The second half of the album isn’t as consistent, but it does include a new favorite: “Die Young.” Beginning with a bed of phased keyboard sounds and Iommi’s subtle lead guitar, the main section is fast-paced, yet they hold back the big hook in the chorus until about 2 minutes in (“Die young, die young, can’t you see the writing on the wall?”). It’s rare that a chorus is the quietest part of the song, but that’s what they do here, especially with Dio’s tender vocal approach. Iommi also delivers a fantastic solo through the outro. “Lonely Is The Word” is the best of the other three songs. The verses are mediocre but I like the chorus. Most of the singing ends after 2 minutes, and then it turns into a sparse epic with a mammoth Iommi guitar solo. He’s also the star of “Wishing Well,” ripping some brief guitar leads during the chorus and throughout the verses. “Walk Away” isn’t terribly memorable, a simple pop/rock song that points to Def Leppard and “Lick It Up”-era Kiss. It’s not a perfect album by any means, but it’s got five incredibly memorable songs that stand proudly among their best, and sonically it’s the finest thing they’ve done so far.
Bill Ward quit during the tour for Heaven And Hell and was replaced by Vinnie Appice, who became an official member on their next album, Mob Rules (1981). His style is heavier than Ward’s, but it perfectly suits the bombastic nature of the music they were writing. For the most part, this Martin Birch-produced sophomore effort from the Dio-fronted lineup offers more of the same, which makes it slightly less enjoyable than its predecessor. There are, however, a handful of standout songs that are as good as anything they’ve done. The nearly 8-minute “The Sign Of The Southern Cross” is an amazing track, and the album’s centerpiece. You can sense something dark and evil in the music, even during the acoustic intro with Dio singing sweetly, “Fade away, fade away, vanish into small.” When the band kicks in, the song becomes huge and heavy, with a great massive guitar riff, and Dio wails on “It’s the sign, feels like the time.” “Mob Rules” reminds me of Queen’s heavier songs, especially Iommi’s guitar riff and Appice’s Roger Taylor-inspired drumming (most notably during the verses). This one is short & sweet, with some excellent stops & starts and a typically wailing solo from Iommi. “Country Girl” is another winner. It’s unlike anything else they’ve recorded, with an old world, almost Celtic vibe. The loping rhythm and fat riff drive this midtempo song, which seems to be about a devil woman (“Fell in love with a country girl…she was up from a nether world”). Although the slow middle section (“In dreams I think of you”; “Sail on, sail on”) sounds a little too much like the previous album’s “Die Young,” I don’t mind that they copied themselves here.
[Black Sabbath – “Country Girl”]
“Falling Off The Edge Of The World” is the last of the truly memorable songs here. Is that an uncredited violin during the quiet intro? If so, it’s a nice addition. The super slow and heavy section reminds me of the first album classic, “Black Sabbath,” which then gives way to a fast section through the remainder of the song. Super heavy album opener “Turn Up The Night” gives us a fast chugging rhythm that I like…but it was done better on the previous album. “Voodoo” is held together mainly by the fluid Iommi riff. The band is at the top of its game but it didn’t make a huge impression. “E5150” is just three minutes of various keyboard sound effects, processed voices and treated bass and guitar. It would work better as the intro to a concept album, but kills the momentum in the middle of the album. Appice channels his inner John Bonham, with a great staggered drum pattern, on “Slipping Away.” It’s not much of a song, but I like the bright chorus (a harmonized “Slipping away, slipping away”) and the alternating bass & guitar leads in the solo section. “Over And Over” closes things out with a slow, booming, plodding rhythm and big tom-tom fills from Appice. It’s a pretty good tune, but it mostly seems like a vehicle for Iommi to showcase his prowess as a guitar god. If this had been the first album they recorded with Dio it would probably seem a lot stronger, but it’s hard to live up to the level set by Heaven And Hell. Still, with at least four absolutely killer songs and another phenomenal production job by Martin Birch, this is an album I will be enjoying again and again.
By the end of the subsequent tour there was a lot of bad blood between the band members, especially Iommi & Geezer versus Dio, and this lineup split up before doing any more recording. They did put together a live album from the Mob Rules tour, Live Evil (1982). I’ve read stories about how each band member would sneak into the studio during mixing sessions when the others weren’t around, trying to boost their own performances, and I think this shows in the final product. Even though, sonically speaking, this is a better record than their earlier live album (Live At Last), it’s still not up to the standards of other live records from that era. I like that the 14 tracks are split evenly between the Ozzy and Dio eras, which makes for an excellent set list, and they sound equally strong on both. I was surprised that Dio didn’t sound as sinister on “Black Sabbath” as Ozzy did on the original, but like everything here the singing and musicianship is superb. Iommi has two nice guitar solos in the extended “Heaven And Hell” and “The Sign Of The Southern Cross” portion of the show, the second being an indulgent solo showcase (most likely when the rest of the band took a bathroom break). This album also has the distinction of being the longest-running CD I own, at just over 80 minutes (I previously thought the limit was 79:59). Sadly, the last track (the brief instrumental “Fluff”) doesn’t play properly, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this record. It’s not essential, but it’s a pretty good artifact of a band still at the peak of its powers.
For their next album, Born Again (1983), Sabbath turned to former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan. On paper this was an excellent match, especially with the return of Bill Ward on drums, but unfortunately there are several serious problems with this record. First of all, there’s the hideous cover art. I’m not sure if it’s the image itself or the choice of colors, but instead of being creepy and scary it’s just ugly. Then there’s the production, which is very thin and tinny, and some of those ‘80s synthetic drum sounds even begin creeping in. Finally, although I love Gillan’s voice, he’s never been a great lyricist, and his work here is no exception. While Dio’s “sword-and-sorcery” fantasy lyrics were a perfect match for the heavy and bombastic music they were creating, Gillan’s more down-to-earth, regular guy lyrics don’t mesh well with the music. One major exception is “Born Again,” which is slow and sparse, creating a nice mood and letting the album breathe after numerous fast rockers (which I’ll get to in a moment). At nearly 6-1/2 minutes and covering various musical terrains, it’s this album’s “The Sign Of The Southern Cross,” an epic that showcases one of Iommi’s most spellbinding solos. Gillan’s voice is incredible as he delivers some amazing high notes, which is the case throughout.
The album begins with “Trashed,” an upbeat rocker which sounds more like Deep Purple, and even the lyrics about a drunken drag race don’t seem like Black Sabbath material. Ward’s drumming is solid, and Gillan’s vocals continue to impress. I especially like the melody at “I was turning, tires burning.” There’s not much to the 2-minute instrumental “Stonehenge,” although it did become the inspiration for the classic scene in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. “Disturbing The Priest” is a silly, minor song that goes on way too long, although it does have a clever title and I really like Iommi’s guitar tone. Gillan’s vocals, as well as his maniacal laugh, give this a nice sinister tone. “Zero The Hero” is also a little silly, but I like it a lot, especially the rousing chorus (“What you gonna be, what you gonna be brother? Zero The Hero!”). It’s the first song here to have a classic Sabbath feel with a dark tone and crushing riff, and a big melodic guitar solo. “Digital Bitch” is an angry screed against a woman he clearly loathes (apparently it was written about Ozzy’s new wife, Sharon Osbourne, and her notorious father, Don Arden). It comes across as a stupid one-note song, which it certainly is, but there’s a certain charm in its blatant stupidity. “Hot Line” is a relatively simple 4/4 rocker with a memorable chorus (“When will you show me a sign? When will you throw me a line?”). Musically it fits in with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. The album closes with the nondescript “Keep It Warm,” a throwaway song that’s really just a backdrop for a stunning Iommi guitar solo. I did enjoy the melody in the chorus, specifically the line “Nobody’s gonna take away our magical ride.”
This was a short-lived lineup. In fact, Ward didn’t even participate in the subsequent tour, with Electric Light Orchestra’s Bev Bevan taking over drumming duties. Although I like a handful of songs on Born Again, the issues I described in the opening paragraph about the album make this a difficult listen. It was probably a good thing that they parted ways with Gillan, who rejoined the classic Deep Purple lineup for their remarkable 1984 comeback album, Perfect Strangers. As for Sabbath, they would go on to record a series of albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s with numerous lineup changes. As I stated in my first Black Sabbath post, I didn’t own any of these albums until I made digital copies of a friend’s CDs several years ago, none of which I’ve listened to…until now. It should be interesting as I check them out for the first time, since I have no idea what to expect. My plan is to go in with an open mind (as always) and hopefully hear some great music, and perhaps to discover one or more underrated classic albums. Let the listening begin.